Sunday, April 28, 2019

Ungilding the Lily

Readers occasionally ask “Roger, are your stories true?” Lots of readers – not just my mother and my daughter Eleanor.


On the other hand, I never promised the whole truth, or nothing but the truth.

Unlike practitioners of certain dubious fiction genres, a memoirist can't get away with describing too many implausible coincidences in a row. Nevertheless, these stories all involve my bizarrely logocentric/charmed/cursed life. As you may have noticed, coincidence abounds. 

Numerous ruthless deletions are therefore necessary in order to avoid straining credulity, or exhausting readers’ patience.

For example, my recent essay about an off-Broadway-inspired epiphany begins with the sentence “Sometimes the universe speaks directly to you through music.” As you read “Comfort Animals,” you probably guessed something like this was going through my mind last Wednesday at Showtune Night:

“Here I am sitting at the piano bar in Vancouver, pondering a major life mystery – say, what’s this intriguing showtune I’ve never heard before?”

That's true. But here’s how the draft essay originally began:

The piano player at Showtune Night in Canada, Kerry O’Donovan, likes to point out when he’s playing a “hat-trick” of three songs connected by a single theme – such as Kander & Ebb showstoppers made famous by Liza Minnelli, or anthems introduced by Disney villains. 

Last Wednesday, Kerry surprised us by announcing his first “double hat-trick” – six songs from different shows, all focused on the same word. As the audience leaned in, Kerry started with “Times Like This,” from Lucky Stiff:

A friendly face
The kind of face
That melts you with a grin
The kind of eyes that welcome you
The minute you walk in
A tender glance
You simply can't refuse

Times like this, a guy could use ... a ________.1

Sometimes the universe speaks directly to you through music. Despite my recent plague of boils and other challenges, I’ve been in a shockingly good mood lately....

Snore. Too much clumsy exposition. Even if it's all true.

1I’m not filling in the blank. Put down your knitting and go read Comfort Animals.” It’s pretty good. Particularly the editing.

More than one reader has accused me of endlessly meandering before I get to the point. Would it comfort you to know that, at least in their early drafts, most of my blog essays started out with at least three additional introductions, and two bonus conclusions? [Ed. Note: Just like Lord of the Rings.] You should be grateful all the extra prefaces and postscripts are usually composted before publication.

Writing is like sculpture: sometimes the most important part of the artistic process is chipping stuff away.

Every edit is intended to serve the story, to find the right word, and to make the narrative flow. I wouldn’t add or omit anything that fundamentally alters the story. The truth is usually more than enough.

On the other hand, “materiality” can depend on context. The same obviously exaggerated detail in one telling might be misleading in another account, when were focused on different themes or events. 

You’ll have to trust me. Don’t I strike you as a pretty reliable narrator?

For example, I was indeed pondering the reason for my suspiciously cheery mood just as Kerry introduced "Times Like This." However, I did not attempt to transcribe the lyrics from my memory of what he actually sang last Wednesday. They're a blur. Instead, I found a comprehensive educational webpage with reliable links to theatrical lyrics. I picked the verses of the song I wanted to quote, and divided them into the two short excerpts that ultimately appear in “Comfort Animals.”

I made a few minor edits to the lyrics, such as omitting the plot-specific introduction, and changing the text to suitably gendered pronouns. I also borrowed the revised phrase “At times like this a person could use another ____” from Katherine McPhee’s charming version of the song on YouTube. 

So it's a true story. More or less.

Face it, deep down I’m an English Major. I can’t just turn off my editor function – I’m not Microsoft Word, or Apple autocorrect.

Or, if you prefer, you can blame my obsessive editing on the traumas I endured in my past. As with other PTSD sufferers, those traumatic events left me with various compulsive behaviours, such as hair pulling. And copy editing.

Regardless, the Oxford comma is not negotiable.

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